Over the past three years, women have been forced to confront several realities: that society (and often their male partners) ultimately view them as default, unpaid caretakers, regardless of their professional achievements, earnings, or identities outside of family roles; that their health, mental and physical, is not anyone’s priority; and that any equity women gain can be reversed. In other words, women are on their own.
In the first six months of the pandemic, 36% of working women were doing “most or all of the childcare” in two-parent households, according to a study that labeled that demographic, chillingly, “Remote Wife Does It All.” The women in that group had the lowest scores for wellbeing and job performance.
The slow return to normal life has not meant confetti and flowers for women. Overall, employed women still earn 83% of men’s salaries. Women working in the service industry were the hardest hit by pandemic job losses, and as of August 2022 had not regained all of those jobs. Only around 5% of CEOs are women, and women comprise only about 28% of corporate boards. The current U.S. Congress has a record number of women, who together still comprise only 28%. There is no federally mandated paid family leave, little progress toward more affordable or accessible childcare, and no constitutional right to abortion. American women get worse healthcare than women in any developed country from a system biased against them, and pay a lot for it.
Our 2023 State of Women Report, a study of 4,500 women conducted by The Harris Poll on behalf of theSkimm, discovered that, while women are exhausted and disappointed, they have not given up. They have simply given up on the illusion of external support. The findings show that women are making seismic changes to how they live, finally prioritizing their own needs because no one else will. Instead of resignation, they are exhibiting agency, and a willingness to make tough choices to secure their own futures.
Here’s a glimpse of just how disenchanted women are with the unfulfilled promises of equity and societal support, according to our study:
Help is not coming.
When asked to choose which parts of their lives they felt they could control, only 16% of millennial women said “legislation that impacts me” — ranking it after their financial future, access to healthcare, their children’s education, and the quality of local climate. Read that again: Women feel more in control of the weather than they do the laws governing them. 65% say “New legislation and policies that are being passed do not advance women’s rights.”
Gender equity, at work and at home, is far away.
74% of millennial women agreed with the statement, “I am always adjusting my life to accommodate others (e.g., family, co-workers, friends, etc.)” and 79% said “I am concerned with the social expectations around unpaid labor/mental load that women are responsible for.” 76% said, “Women are largely responsible for unpaid labor and mental load at home (e.g., women doing more household labor, taking on scheduling, etc.).” These findings echo those of a famous 2015 Pew study of 1,800 two-parent households, which found that men think they are contributing far more than women think they are, especially when it comes to “managing their children’s schedule and activities.”
Outside of the home, 86% of millennial women agree, “Women contribute more to society than they get back.” 74% of women said, “Society treats women like second-class citizens” and, “The deck is stacked against women (societal systems are not set up to help women advance and move forward).” 60% said “People are generally not accepting of women advancing into positions of power.”
Millennial women’s health and especially mental health are at an all-time low.
77% told us, “It is clear to me that I am the only advocate for my health and well-being.”Why? 57% said “I have been dismissed or misdiagnosed by medical professionals,” and 59% said, “I have sought treatment from doctors who do not believe me, or who have ignored my needs.” Three in four told us they are concerned about their female friends’ mental health “after we have all been through so much.”
In spite of those feelings, women are not resigned. Quite the opposite – they are taking matters into their own hands. In the State of Women study, 89% of millennial respondents said they were actively seeking ways to build the lives they want. 64% said they felt the trajectory of their lives were more determined by “my goals and actions,” whereas only 36% answered “societal factors.” These responses are almost certainly influenced by how deeply Americans value individualism, but their sense of individual agency didn’t manifest in the form of ambition or a determination to try harder, take big swings, lean in to existing systems. Instead, in the face of persistent inequity, women are focusing on their own needs, even when that means doing less for or because of others.
“I am tired of trying to be a super mom, super wife, and/ or super employee,” 64% told us. In fact, they’re rethinking these responsibilities entirely, with 83% agreeing “I am done letting society dictate what a woman's role should be.” And that includes rethinking parenthood – one fifth of millennial women do not have children or plan to in the future. They told us that parenthood is overwhelming in its demands, increasingly unaffordable, and 65% said they “have ethical concerns about having children given political or environmental issues.” They are unwilling to continue following the script written for them.
Instead they are investing in solutions that benefit them. 62% ranked wellness their number one choice for discretionary spending, with mental health close behind. Eight in ten said they are “actively seeking new lifestyles that prioritize their health and well-being,” while 86% are doing five or more things to improve their own well-being in the next year, with a big focus on creating personal time, setting boundaries, and therapy.
Concerned about the impacts of an economic downturn, they are also making calculated financial decisions that prioritize their own futures. 50% have paid off debt, and 60% named this their main priority for discretionary income. (This finding likely also reflects the staggering amount of debt millennials carry.) 30% already have a long-term financial plan, 33% have a side hustle, 24% have switched career paths for higher earning potential, and 24% have advocated for a raise.
These findings indicate enormous opportunities for anyone interested in attracting female constituents or consumers, or — think of it — establishing gender equity for its own sake. Politically, there is a huge opening for leaders who can pass legislation that actually makes women’s lives less stressful. 82% of millennial women we surveyed said, “Everyone talks about how overburdened women are, but no one is actually helping them ease the burden.”
There is also an opportunity for men to show they can become real partners, especially if they want to attract and keep accomplished women in their lives. 84% of women said men should “step up and become advocates and partners in the push for women's equity in society.”
In the absence of political change, women are open to private sector solutions that lighten their loads rather than creating more work. For example, 72% told us, “I am tired of wellness products and services that expect me to add something more to my day.”
In the meantime, the plan is to do it all differently, because help isn’t coming, except from each other. Over the last three years, we’ve learned how to do that, even though we shouldn’t have to.
To access our complete State of Women Report, please click here.
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